Tony Abbott stumbled when opportunity knocked in Parliament on Thursday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Tony Abbott has failed his team by overreaching in his claim that the Prime Minister committed a crime. He produced no evidence of wrong-doing, despite his interpretation of events surrounding the slush fund.
His performance on Thursday had echoes of Julie Bishop's misstep earlier in the week, when she made a grave accusation against the PM, then flatly denied she had done so.
The opposition thought it had uncovered the ''smoking gun'', the evidence of a hanging offence by Julia Gillard, when another section of a transcript emerged. It contained an exchange between Gillard, then a lawyer, and members of her law firm.
Gillard maintains she gave only legal advice for a legal entity to be established, 17 years ago.
She took advice from her clients, one of whom was her then boyfriend, Bruce Wilson. She denies she established the entity or ''slush fund'' - that was done by her clients.
However, a letter she wrote to the Western Australian Corporate Affairs Commission, saying the entity was not a trade union, is being used by the opposition to claim Gillard had more involvement that she says.
''It demonstrates the Prime Minister made false representations to the Western Australian Corporate Affairs Commission,'' Abbott said on Thursday morning.
After he accused the PM of com-mitting an offence, his team called for her to resign. It was telling that he did not repeat the accusation when he revisited the topic under parlia-mentary privilege although he called her ''a dodgy and unethical lawyer''.
No hanging offence there.
The PM was furious about a report in this newspaper and other Fairfax publications. She turned this fury on Abbott and took the rare step of giving him the microphone, with a motion to delay question time while he explained himself.
Abbott's delivery seemed halting, a point noted later by Gillard, and he stumbled at this hurdle.
There were catcalls from Labor MPs as Abbott softened his language when he said Gillard's represent-ations to the commission ''certainly appear to be in breach of the law''.
''At the very least this is conduct unbecoming,'' he mused.
While the finale of the Coalition's attack was a fizzer, some of the mud will stick to the PM if Abbott has created enough confusion and doubt about the issue.